The Yellowknives Dene backed a national call to action on housing as the First Nation pursues a dream of developing its own housing for the benefit of members.
The First Nation and more than 70 other organizations backed an April 27 letter setting out Indigenous housing concerns and eight actions to address those needs after the Covid-19 pandemic.
The letter, from the University of British Columbia’s Housing Research Collaborative, calls on the federal government to create a “well-funded Indigenous housing strategy.”
The group argues investing in more housing will be a quick way to get the economy moving after the Covid-19 crisis passes.
The Yellowknives Dene agree and want some of that investment to come north.
The NWT has acknowledged it is in a housing crisis. Last year, research found two-thirds of homes in Dettah had some form of issue such as overcrowding or poor quaity.
Jason Snaggs, chief executive of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN), says those problems – and a shortage of housing – are common across both Dettah and Ndilǫ.
“There are houses that are built on the southern standards, for example,” said Snaggs, “which increases the cost and maintenance of those types of housing
“And then the inability for First Nations in the North to have access to housing leads to other social problems like poor education outcomes, unemployment, and mental health and addiction [issues].”
Work on the Yellowknives Dene’s 10-year housing strategy began after a summit hosted by Inuvik in May 2019.
“We recognize that one size does not fit all,” said Snaggs, who believes unsettled land claims are a factor in the First Nation’s housing problems.
“In our case, we were completely being left out of all of the equations associated with infrastructure and housing,” he said.
“Insurance, for example, is very difficult to get in Dettah or in Ndilǫ, because you’re building on IAB land.” Indian Affairs Branch land is federal Crown land set aside for the use of Indigenous residents.
Snaggs continued: “How do we ensure that CMHC [Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, the federal agency] can work with First Nations like ourselves, like YKDFN, to provide that assistance?”
Training ‘so people can participate’
Snaggs believes working with the CMHC will be central to the finished housing strategy, allowing the Yellowknives Dene to apply for direct funding.
He hopes that will have an impact on the cost of rent.
At the moment, Snaggs characterizes the solution being used as “just building units and renting them to First Nations and Indigenous peoples with the highest rent possible.”
He said: “We hope to have our own social network in place where we will develop training and provide skills so people can participate in building homes, including their own homes.
“We will work towards financial literacy. We will ensure that rent is not prohibitive, but it’s based on your willingness to maintain [a home] and ensure you’re contributing to your home ownership.”
Leonard Catling, a spokesperson for CMHC, said being at the same Inuvik meeting last year provided insight into working with a “northern lens” to meet needs like those of YKDFN.
Catling said the agency has spent the past year meeting clients from across the North and the NWT Housing Corporation “to identify shared priorities, outline specific areas for collaboration, and to establish joint action plans.”
That has included looking at ways “to provide greater access to CMHC mortgage loan insurance for Indigenous and Northern communities.”
Catling says more northern groups are applying for the National Housing Co-Investment Fund, where CMHC helps to pay for housing developments.
He says the federal agency has a “renewed focus on housing affordability” and has specialists in northern and Indigenous housing providing “hands-on support.”
Survey, lobbying for funds still ahead
Snaggs said a survey of members in Ndilǫ and Dettah was to have helped finalize the housing strategy, but the pandemic got in the way.
“Again, we’re hampered by Covid but we are working to see how innovative we can be in getting these plans to community members so that we can get their feedback on them,” he said.
“Beyond that, it’s a question of getting the funding to start building houses and putting down the infrastructure for housing in the community.”
Snaggs said $700,000 has already been committed through various funds, including $110,000 from the NWT Housing Corporation.
“But today, it is an uphill battle,” said Snaggs. “The battle has not been won.
“We hope we can continue lobbying the federal government to provide direct flexible funding, in collaboration with agencies like CMHC, to allow us to get to that point whereby we can develop First Nation housing for the members of our community.”